Lower Phalen Creek Project starts constructing the Wakáŋ Tipi Center

Big news from the Lower Phalen Creek Project (LPCP): It started construction Aug. 29 on the Wakáŋ Tipi Center in St. Paul’s Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary, and it secured $3.3 million from the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council to daylight the first section of Phalen Creek, just south of Lake Phalen. 

This spring, LPCP also is going to announce a name change, “to better align our name with who we have become as a Native-led environmental organization,” it said.

You can learn about the organization’s ongoing work at “Keeping Up with the Creek,” its annual fundraising event, Thursday, Sept. 15, 6 – 8 p.m. at the Minnesota History Center. 345 W Kellogg Blvd, Saint Paul. Register here.

There isn’t a charge to attend. People are asked to make voluntary donations.

The LPCP event will feature refreshments and desserts from Gatherings Cafe, an opening prayer from board member Cantemaza, welcome songs from Imnizaska drum group, and a fireside chat with Faith Spotted Eagle – a mother, grandmother, and matriarch from the Yankton Sioux Tribe who has dedicated her life to protecting and defending our sacred lands and waters.

The event also will feature a newly created short film that speaks to the importance of Indigenous leadership in the environmental conservation field. Prior to the event, guests will have access to a free guided tour of the Our Home: Native Minnesota exhibit at the History Center from 5-6 p.m. You can learn more about the exhibit here.

Wakáŋ Tipi Center

Artist’s rendering of the Wakáŋ Tipi Center. Image: Lower Phalen Creek Project.

The LPCP’s initial mission was to strengthen St. Paul’s East Side and Lowertown communities by developing local “parks, trails, ecological and cultural resources, and by rebuilding connections to the Mississippi River,” its website said. “It was the lead agency in reclaiming a once contaminated rail yard and transforming it into the 27-acre Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary, a site which includes Wakáŋ Tipi.

Wakáŋ Tipi cave is a sacred site to Dakota people, located below Indian Mounds Park along the Mississippi River on St. Paul’s East Side. (Wakáŋ Tipi means “Dwelling Place of the Sacred” or “Dwelling Place of the Great Spirit” in Dakota.)

The new Center aims to honor, interpret, and educate the community about Wakáŋ Tipi, its rich Dakota history, and the natural history around the 27-acre nature sanctuary. The Center “will feature an exhibit hall, classroom, ceremony and community gathering area, and teaching kitchen, to showcase and expand the value of the sanctuary as a place for cultural healing, life-long learning, and inspiration,” the LPCP website says.

The cave itself was mostly destroyed by railroad construction.

Locator map.

Maggie Lorenz (enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe and descendant of the Spirit Lake Dakota Nation) is LPCP’s executive director. She said the Wakáŋ Tipi Center has three main goals: To honor and protect the sacred site, to reconnect Dakota and other Indigenous people to the sacred site and culture; and to elevate and illuminate the lives of contemporary Native people in the eyes of the broader community.

The Center is expected to open in 2023.

Daylighting Phalen Creek

The vision to daylight Phalen Creek was the original catalyst to create LPCP in 1997, the organization said.

The most recent effort started in 2018 when a community survey showed strong support for the initiative. The Swede Hollow neighborhood adopted daylighting Phalen Creek as part of its Master Plan in 2019. Feasibility studies followed, and ultimately the state’s Outdoor Heritage Fund provided funding.

Phalen Creek, which runs between Lake Phalen and the Mississippi River, was buried in the 1930s, effectively becoming a storm sewer. It passed under what is known as the Swede Hollow neighborhood, which was an environmental sacrifice zone.

Proposed Phalen Creek alignment (blue line). Image: LPCP.

The neighborhood was home to poor immigrant communities, first Swedes then Italian, Polish and eventually Mexican immigrants, according to the LPCP website. Local businesses such as 3M, Whirlpool, and Hamms dumped their wastewater in the Phalen Creek watershed.

Dan McGinnis, an LPCP volunteer and board member and long-time East Side resident, sees a greater significance in daylighting Phalen Creek, and how it fits with the realignment of LPCP’s work.

LPCP has gone from being a collaboration of East Siders who cared about the area, toward being an Indigenous-led environmental group, he said.

“It’s ‘daylighted’ our heritage,” McGinnis said. “What we’re talking about now is the restoration of the ecological and cultural heritage of this area, the recognition of the real history and what this place is all about – its significance,” it’s sanctity.

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